In 1988, Roger Ailes was at the top of the political consulting world, advising then-Vice President George H.W. Bush ahead of that year’s presidential contest when C&E sat down with him to chat about the state of political media.
Ailes no longer talks about his political consulting days—he officially left the business in the early 1990s, founding Fox News Channel a few years later. From Ailes tips on crafting the perfect attack ad to his philosophy on political media, we found this one well worth a read.
(Editor’s note: This Q&A was published in the May/June 1988 issue of Campaigns & Elections.)
C&E: You have a success record that is the envy of most consultants in either party. How have you been able to amass such a high batting average?
Roger Ailes: I think it’s because I’m unpredictable. I view every situation, every race, and every candidate differently. I try not to rely on something that worked before.
C&E: How do you attract earned media if you’re an unknown candidate?
Ailes: If you want to get unpaid media coverage, you had better be quotable. It’s an interesting problem, because very few candidates are quotable. They say, “I don’t want to say anything controversial.” And so nobody covers them. Then they blame the journalists, saying “Why don’t they write down what I said?” In congressional races, 90 percent of the time the answer is, “Because you are boring and you don’t have anything that makes me interested in listening to you. Why the heck should somebody write it down? There’s nothing here worth hearing.”
C&E: How does a candidate attract the media’s interest?
Ailes: You’ve got to find a different approach. You’ve got to create some interest in your language, in the words and pictures you create. If a candidate can’t give a 10-minute speech and have reporters reaching for their pens in the first 90 seconds, he probably shouldn’t be running.
C&E: What are some of the other more common mistakes candidates make in trying to attract earned media?
Ailes: They try to make the reporter their friend, and coopt them or seduce them or do something stupid. Reporters may be friendly—but if you get through life without having a reporter as a friend, that may be an advantage. If you insist on having one as a friend, don’t do interviews with him. Reporters have a different point of view and a different job. Consequently, to the extent that you can help them turn in an interesting story that their editor is going to like and that’s going to further their careers, they’re going to give you more ink and cover you.
C&E: What mistakes do candidates often make in their paid media?
Ailes: An enormous problem with paid media, especially at the congressional level, is that it all starts to look alike. The reason is that they all have to be shot for 79 cents, and there isn’t much you can do. If you are a good communicator, be unique: put yourself in your own commercials and do something a little different. To the extent you can focus on what it is you want to change, and what it is you think will make life better for other people, you’re going to do better. If you’re running because you want a job that’s prestigious or because you have or because you have this vague knowledge that you’re better than everybody else, you’re easier to beat. Show me a man or woman with a mission, and I’ll show you somebody that’s tougher to beat.
C&E: What are the signs that indicate whether an incumbent is weak?
Ailes: If he has no identifiable issue, if he has no definition as a person, and if that desire part of the equation just isn’t there, I don’t care what the polls say. He can be had.
C&E: Once you’re behind and you have decided to go negative, how do you make an attack stick?
Ailes: If you’re running far behind in the polls, and you decide to use comparative advertising, you have to be able to explain to the people why the incumbent shouldn’t have the job. So first I say, “Why should this so and so who’s in there not be a senator?” Then we do a lot of research and design advertising based on that. To be successful, you’ve got to get the kind of torque that’s created by a push and pull. You’ve got to draw attention to your candidate. You’ve got to attract interest in your candidate. The problem when you’re running far behind is that you’ve got to move through those positive phases very quickly. Then, you have to draw attention to the other guy. You’ve got to create interest in why you differ from him and you’ve got to create a desire to remove him.